The Story of the Best Grateful Dead Show Ever

'Cornell '77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead's Concert at Barton Hall' explores the show's story.

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Apr 13 2017, 1:00pm

Barton Hall. Cornell University. May 8, 1977. To fans of The Grateful Dead, these words are sacrosanct, the markers of the band's most legendary show. Taped, traded, and talked about to no end, 5/8/77 has long since become an institutionalized part of Dead lore, a key artifact of the band's fan-driven history and likely more famous than any of the group's official albums. Listening to it is a Deadhead rite of passage.

"It's like picking chocolate or vanilla as your ice cream go-to or Biggie as the GOAT: an inarguable but safe choice," Jeff Weiss wrote on this website in 2015. "Still, accepted wisdom holds '77 as the band's finest vintage. Jerry's guitar playing achieved cascading rainbow liquidity usually only achievable by computer screensaver. The notes split open and immolate, re-forming and floating effortlessly in frozen time, wobbling whatever way they want."

A new book, Cornell '77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead's Concert at Barton Hall, written by counterculture scribe Peter Conners, explores the history and mythology surrounding the show. Conners describes the conditions that made the concert such a pivotal moment for the university's student bookers and sets forth the argument that Cornell '77, in particular, represents the pinnacle of the democratization that made The Grateful Dead American icons.

Handbill courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Collections, Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

A riot at a Deep Purple concert in Cornell in 1973 had damaged a ton of school property, lost a lot of money, and made the administration wary of rock concerts in general. The Cornell Concert Commission, a student group, was in rough financial shape and needed a financially successful show to pull it out of the hole. Eager to prove to the Cornell administration that rock concerts had a place on campus and have a good time in the process, the CCC worked with heavy duty East Coast promoter John Scher to bring the Grateful Dead to Barton Hall. Little did they know they were creating bonafide rock 'n' roll history in the process. I gave Conners a call to learn more about what many consider the best Grateful Dead show of all time.

Noisey: What were the circumstances that combined to propel the Grateful Dead to top musical form when they played Barton Hall at Cornell in 1977?
Peter Conners: Cornell '77 and the shows played on that particular East Coast spring tour mark the Grateful Dead at one of their peaks. The band had several peak periods, and different people prefer different periods for different reasons. But, yes, spring 1977 was one of them. The band took a touring hiatus in 1975 and got back on the road in June 1976. To resume touring was to make a conscious decision to do this thing called The Grateful Dead, while also benefitting from some time away from it.

When I hear those 1977 shows, I hear a band that is rejuvenated, enthusiastic, running lean and hungry, and completely focused on making great music. They had also each pursued their own musical, creative, and life directions during the hiatus, and I think they were bringing each other some pleasant musical surprises to add to the stew. Plus, they were rocking an arsenal of new songs, including many future Grateful Dead classics, and were clearly enjoying mapping out that new territory.

Out of all the tapes and all the shows and all the recordings of the Dead, how did Cornell '77 take the top spot?
I'm pleased to report that you'll find no clear consensus among Deadheads which show is the band's "best." In fact, one of my favorite quotes from a Barton Hall non-believer is that 5/8/77 wasn't even the Dead's best show that week! However, you can reach a quick consensus that Cornell '77 is one of—if not the—most listened-to Dead shows. There are a few good reasons for that. One, it's a stellar show. The Dead were playing at one of their peak periods. There were also very good recordings of the show being traded for years, so it became a staple of bootleg collections through the late 70s and early 80s. In the mid-to-late 80s, the "Betty Boards" recording of the show appeared, and the pristine sound quality of that recording boosted an already popular show to the next level.

Barton Hall / Photograph courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Collections, Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Musically, one of the high points of Cornell '77 that launches it into the discussion as one of "the best" is the sequence of the song "Scarlet Begonias" played through an immaculate transition into the song "Fire on the Mountain." That approach to intrepidly improvising sequences between songs is one of the things that made The Grateful Dead so damn unique, exciting and special—and Cornell '77 puts those talents on full display. The show also ends with a version of "Morning Dew" that is widely regarded as one of the best. "Morning Dew" was a staple in the band's repertoire almost from the start, but on 5/8/77 Garcia emotes so powerfully on both his guitar and his vocals that, for many, it becomes the definitive version of that song.

Who was Betty Cantor-Jackson, and what was the significance of what was referred to as "Betty Boards?"
In the simplest terms, Betty Cantor-Jackson worked as a sound engineer for The Grateful Dead. However, as with most Dead stories, that barely scratches the surface. In truth, the circuitous saga of the Betty Boards (the name fans give to the coveted live recordings Betty made) and Betty's history with the band are an inescapable part of the Cornell '77 story. I conducted a long interview with Betty for the book and also talked to lawyers, record company executives, band experts, and more about the legal issues surrounding the ownership of the Betty Boards. It's a topic that spills over into Betty's personal relationships within the band, and also the band's overall approach to business at that time.

The band had famously blurry boundaries between their business and personal relationships. It worked fabulously well for many purposes, but it also came back to bite them at different times. The saga of the Betty Board recordings takes on an air of tragedy given its intersections with art, family, business, idealism, romance, drug abuse, and money. But, as with all things Grateful Dead, the only reason we're talking about it is because the art is so damn good. In this case, Betty's live recordings were her art, and she captured Dead shows in ways that fans continue to hold in the highest regard. In Dead world, Betty Boards stand for quality.

Notes courtesy of Carol Latvala and the Grateful Dead Archives at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

What's the most mesmerizing part of the Cornell '77 show for you?
The highlight for me was geeking out on a chord that Jerry plays three minutes and 43 seconds into "Lazy Lightning Supplication." With the help of some musician friends, after much lively debate, we determined that the chord is a Cb5/E, slid down a half-step, then slid up to resolve. It splits the song wide open, but it also feels like he's peeling open a layer of your brain in this really wise, friendly, playful, benign but decidedly enlightened way. Classic Jerry Garcia.

Why will the Dead forever be associated with LSD. And is that good or bad for the band?
The Dead discovered the underlying nature of their musical connection as a band—between each other and with their audience—at the Acid Tests that were held by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the mid-to-late 60s. They were on acid at the time. Everyone there was on acid. That was the point. Those experiences formed a blueprint for what the band would spend the rest of their career working toward. Their audience carried that torch forward, and LSD became inextricably intertwined with the Grateful Dead's story and their surrounding culture.

Interestingly enough, it doesn't matter what decade of the band's career you're talking about: 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s, LSD is there in the background. It's playing a role. At their best, both LSD and Grateful Dead music can help guide explorers into heretofore unexamined corners of consciousness. As with all consciousness exploration, though, the impacts are longer lasting and more beneficial if you figure out how to get where you want to go without any intervening substances.

Plus, a lot of people got busted and some are still doing time for selling LSD at Dead shows. The negative impact of LSD on the Dead scene has much more to do with American drug laws than the substance itself though. What we criminalize and punish and what we mass produce and advertise—not to mention how we treat those who most need our help in dealing with abuse and addiction—speaks volumes about our society's values.

Photograph courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Collections, Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

What aspects juxtaposed to make Cornell '77 the memorable show that it's remembered as today?
The passion of the kids on the Cornell Concert Commission who were so determined to make this concert happen. The passion of musicians who played—and play—their lives out onstage always digging a little deeper to deliver something new. The passion of the fans, the Deadheads, who were determined to spread the gospel of The Grateful Dead out of love for the music. The passion of Betty Cantor-Jackson for getting just the right mix into her recordings. The passion of all the individuals who continue to steward the Dead's musical legacy so meticulously, thoughtfully, and with true joy. Cornell '77 became, to me, much more than a story about a single show. It became a story about the best of human nature and a celebration of the tremendous spirit that lives on in the music of The Grateful Dead.

Listen to the concert here.

Ticket photo courtesy of Dean Heiser

Seth Ferranti is a writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter.